Boston favors criminal justice reform


As we've presented previously on the blog and at an event with Gov. Patrick, Massachusetts residents overall favor reforming the criminal justice system to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation and less on punishment. But if the state were to pursue such reforms, certain communities would feel a disproportionate impact. As MassINC reported in 2013, half of all Department of Corrections inmates are released into just 10 cities in Massachusetts.

How would residents of these areas react to reforms that would bring immediate impact in their own communities? In Boston, the answer is: positively. Boston residents favor a variety of reforms which would shift the focus away from punishment and incarceration and toward a set of more nuanced approaches.

To examine this issue, we examined an oversample of residents of Boston interviewed as a part of the statewide poll. Click here for a full topline comparing Boston results to overall statewide opinions. The document includes full question wording and numbers for all of the points shown below. Key findings are below, with references to supporting figures in the topline document.


Boston residents are even more supportive of criminal justice reform proposals than are residents statewide, where support is already quite high. Three quarters of Boston residents would prefer the criminal justice system focus on prevention or rehabilitation, while the current system is seen as most effective at punishment. See page 2 of topline.

Support for various types of reforms is high in Boston, particularly when people perceive that such reforms would make the system better. When various progressive reform ideas are described together, support is around 90 percent. Cost savings are fine, but are not residents’ number one goal. Above all, people want a system that works and one that prevents future crime rather than one that just saves money for its own sake. Pages 1, 6.

In 1997, two thirds of all statewide residents supported building a new prison. Now, two thirds statewide and 81 percent in Boston want alternatives and reforms that result in fewer people being sent to prison. In Boston, support is exceptionally high for job training so released inmates can find work. Boston residents also support a menu of other reforms to reduce the prison population and reduce recidivism. Pages 4, 5.

reformBy a wide margin, people are more likely to perceive drug use as a health problem (73 percent) than a criminal issue (17 percent). There is high support for diverting drug users to treatment rather than relying on incarceration. Page 4.

Mandatory minimums are not the preferred sentencing mechanism, with just 7 percent of Boston residents saying they are the best of three possible sentencing mechanisms. Many more would prefer considerable amounts of discretion for judges. In 1997, there was broad support for mandatory minimums for a variety of sentencing situations, a dynamic which no longer exists. Page 3.

These opinions are broadly reflective of trends seen in other recent polling, both from other states, and most notably national polling from the non-partisan Pew Center on the States.

About the poll: Poll results are from a public opinion poll of 1,200 Massachusetts residents conducted January 23-29, 2014 including 254 interviews of Boston residents. Interviewing was conducted Braun Research, Inc. in English and Spanish using live telephone interviewers. Respondents were reached on both landlines and cell phones. The margin of sampling error is approximately 3.5% for the statewide figures and 6.2% for the Boston oversample.